I don’t know about you, but I bloody love soup. That’s probably just as well, because Edinburgh has become awash with delicious soup in the last couple of years, and it’s mainly down to one company: Union of Genius. From their cafe on Forrest Road and Dumbo the soup van in George Square, to their wholesale output across some 30 plus cafes across the city, Union of Genius is serving lunch to hundreds of us every day with their amazing soups and salads.
As one of Edinburgh’s most exciting and well known small businesses we thought they would be great to interview for our Business Makes Edinburgh feature – and boy did they not disappoint. We’ve caught up with Elaine, Amy and Bruce to discuss all things soup, Edinburgh and their exciting new crowd funding adventure with Kickstater!
The cafe on Forrest Road opened in late 2011 – just as soup season was starting in earnest – but the idea, Elaine tells us, goes back much further: “Union, though, had its origins back in Manchester, when I was bookselling in Waterstone’s Deansgate in the 1990’s. I could never find real soup to buy for lunch and was too busy (disorganised) to bring my own lunch each day. One frustrating day the idea of a soup cafe appeared in my head – serving different, proper, home-made soups that are meals in their own right, with fabulous flavoured breads. And there the idea lay until a long time later.”
Manchester’s loss though is most definitely Edinburgh’s gain, as Union of Genius is now known not only for its amazing soups, but also its promotion of other businesses. In fact, it’s this bringing together of ideas, delicious food and amazing suppliers that gives our soup-loving friends their name – Union of Genius. In addition to the ever-changing list of soups available, the food on offer is well chosen. The bread is baked fresh by Dough Re Mi, the coffee comes from Artisan Roast, cakes from Love Pure Cakes, Love Crumbs and the Archipelago bakery, and chocolate from Coco and Chocolate Tree. And this is a list that’s ever-growing. Elaine describes it as the result being something greater than any of them, but that doesn’t feel as though it does it any real justice; it’s much more.
And as if that wasn’t enough, as well as bringing together many of Edinburgh’s best producers they are also good human beings, donating soup to the Bethany and City Mission care van that provides food for those sleeping rough on our streets, and hosting events for The Real Junk Food that look at using food rather than throwing it away.
One of the things Union of Genius is best known for – besides the soup, of course – is its success in crowd funding. Back in 2013 they launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise the money to build their kitchen (which is based in a mini industrial estate down in Leith). This has given them the opportunity to increase the soup-giving love many times over – and also gave rise to the wholesale side of the business. And with business booming, they’re at it again, with a second campaign now live so their kitchen can expand: “We need to expand our kitchen space, to separate our chilling and storage from cooking and prep, and by coincidence the unit next door from us has become available. The landlords are willing, but the timing for us financially could be better – so, we’re dreaming up more rewards and starting another funding project.”
It seems only fair to ask then, what their experience was like last time around – and for the advice they’d offer to anyone else taking this approach: “It was utterly nerve-racking and I’ve never wept so often in my life, but the experience was amazing. Advice? Run a short campaign, keep your backers well-updated, make sure the rewards are easy to achieve and aren’t going to break you later, and promote, promote, promote.” They make it sound so simple…
Away from all their crowdfunding efforts, one of the biggest questions I had (from a sheer nosiness perspective, I won’t lie) for the team was what they did in the summer? Our wonderful Edinburgh weather is of course notoriously unpredictable, but do we really have soup in the summer? Elaine, again: “When we started, I imagined we’d be doing lots of chilled soups in summer. In fact, what we actually do in summer is very similar to what we do in winter, just with lighter soups. I have tried to entice Edinburgh into the refreshing pleasures of a very lightly chilled soup, but Edinburgh doesn’t want to know. I’ve encouraged people to taste the same soup served both hot and lightly chilled, and they’re astonished at how different they taste, and at how lovely the chilled version is, but for lunch? The hot one, please. Amazing. We do salads as well as soups, though, and the salad consumption goes up a lot. We are so close to the Meadows, and our take-out picnic bags are really popular.”
So Edinburgh isn’t in to chilled soups then – maybe one day – but with all the options available to Union of Genius it seems remiss not to ask about their favourites, the most popular and the most inventive: “That’s too hard! Caldo Verde is perpetually popular and has been on our menu almost every day since we first opened. Other customer favourites include Lebanese lemon, lentil and spinach, Curried chickpea and spinach [Ed. note: this is one of my favourites] and Celtic Kelpie, with chicken, almonds and dulse seaweed. Soup of the Arabian Nights and Sweet potato, coconut and tamarind have both won Great Taste Awards, but perhaps Coronation chicken, a soupy play on the sandwich filling, is our most inventive.”
But perhaps even more interesting are their ambitious plans – the ones that they think Edinburgh’s not quite ready for. Food security and how we’re going to feed the world has always been of interest to me, both as a food lover and a one time biologist studying ecology and climate change, so I’m really intrigued by the use of insect proteins and other out-there alternatives – apparently I’m not the only one here though: “We’d like to explore insect protein. I was eating mealworms at the 2015 Science Festival, and they were delicious. Plus, we like the idea of customers complaining that there aren’t enough flies in their soup… ” Brilliant.
It is time to tie up our little chat with the wonderful people of Union of Genius, but before ending the conversation there is just time for our perennial question: where is your favourite place in Edinburgh. Elaine struggled a bit – the Meadows with all the cheery blossom, Indaba in Tollcross, the Dogs, Lucky Liqour, the Cameo Bar; for Bruce it’s was the Water of Leith at the Dean Village or the bookshops of the Old Town; Amy will be found in either the Hanging Bat on Lothian Road or Cloisters up in Tollcross. Some final words on favourite things about Edinburgh from Amy: “And any time I catch a glimpse of the Castle between tenements or rising over a hill, it makes me smile.”
I would say that just about sums it all up. Thanks to Elaine, Bruce and Amy for talking to us, you can back Union of Genius on Kickstarter as well as following them on Twitter – use the hashtag #soupstarter. Oh, and go treat yourself to some soup as well, it’s always worth it!
Photos 1 & 2 of the collage and of our bowl of soup credited to Brendan MacNeill